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Israel at the Ends of the Earth

Why do island nations like Palau and Nauru vote with Israel at the U.N.? Israeli aid has something to do with it.

Daniella Cheslow
March 19, 2013
Leliana Firisua, honorary consul of Israel in the Solomon Islands (in blue), at the headquarters of an Israeli-friendly road construction company in the capital, Honiara.(Matthew Fishbane)
Leliana Firisua, honorary consul of Israel in the Solomon Islands (in blue), at the headquarters of an Israeli-friendly road construction company in the capital, Honiara.(Matthew Fishbane)

Last November, when the United Nations General Assembly voted on whether to recognize Palestine as a state, only nine nations in the body of 193 voted “no” with Israel. Among them: Micronesia (Jewish population: zero), the Marshall Islands (ditto), Palau (same), and Nauru (total population of 10,000, less than the annual AIPAC conference). These Pacific Island nations almost always line up behind Israel when the U.N. votes on resolutions concerning the Jewish state.

Are Palau and the Marshall Islands packed with Judeophiles? Or is there another reason for this political support?

Those first three nations are all in what’s called “free association” with the United States—a compact that means they receive financial assistance in exchange for voting with the United States. But Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Nauru, and the Solomon Islands also enjoy generous Israeli aid from the government and from NGOs based on the belief that development is a way to cultivate rare votes of support for Israel in international forums. (For a fascinating, in-depth look into how this project works in the Solomon Islands, see here.)

The story of Israel’s development diplomacy begins in 1958, when the government of Israel established a foreign-aid department called Mashav, the Center for International Development and Cooperation, run out of its foreign ministry. In the years since, Mashav has made a name for itself by funding or partnering on agriculture, water, and clean-energy projects in far-flung countries. The organization sends Israeli advisers abroad to consult on these projects, and it offers scholarships for training programs offered in Israel. Ilan Fluss, a spokesman for Mashav, told me it was founded both to offer vital help and also, explicitly, as a way of garnering support for Israel in international forums.

Though Israel remains isolated in the international arena, other things have changed a lot since the late 1950s. Israel joined the OECD in 2010, and its GDP last year was about $251 billion. Today, Israel’s combined contributions to Mashav, the World Bank, and other major foreign assistance total $140 million, Fluss said, adding that Mashav’s budget was “a small part” of that sum, although he declined to offer specifics. (Israel’s aid is about .07 percent of its gross national income, a small percentage compared to U.S. foreign aid, which totals .21 percent, and that of Switzerland, whose aid amounts to .41, according to data published by The Guardian.) Still, through Mashav, the Israeli government is currently overseeing projects in 98 countries, from model dairy farms in China to early-childhood education programs in Ghana.

But for all the good the Israeli government does through its foreign aid projects, British Orthodox Rabbi Yossi Ives believes that it’s far under Israel’s potential. Seven years ago, as a religious leader in England, he said he could see Jewish values of helping the poor in action in Israel and Great Britain, yet there was little happening in the developing world. “It became increasingly clear to me that by comparison with what could be done, so very little was actually happening,” he said. “Most of what Israelis know about is immediate disaster relief, like after an earthquake. But when there is no disaster, or a silent disaster like the problems of healthcare, malnourishment, economic deprivation, where Israel can make a difference, it became clear to me that there’s a huge potential.”

The answer, Ives thought, was to start an organization to send Israeli experts—like architects, water specialists, and agronomists—to third-world countries in dire need. So, three years ago he founded Tag International Development, an acronym for the Hebrew words Torah and Gdulah (meaning worldly greatness) with the goal of expanding the reach of Israeli aid abroad. Whereas Mashav is a government agency working with other national governments and at the U.N., Tag is focused more on local organizations in the recipient countries.

Mashav’s Fluss said that the government chooses its target countries based on a mix of need along with Israel’s political aims—from building ties with growing economies to securing votes at the U.N. “We do not decide on doing development activities only by the voting, it’s not a measurement for doing development,” Fluss said. “But the Pacific Islands are countries with great need, and development actions there have proven themselves to be effective in voting in the U.N.” Fluss added that development work has helped Israel form working alliances with other countries as a breather from questions about its policies toward the Palestinians. Tag, on the other hand, focuses on countries that need help and that have solid partner organization on the ground, Chief Operations Officer Amos Avgar told me. “Our agenda is not political,” Avgar said. “It’s humanitarian, although we do want to position Israel in a better light.”

In its first year, 2010, Tag worked on an emergency-preparedness plan in Indonesia, along with other projects in Georgia and Azerbaijan. For one project, an Israeli architect flew to Sri Lanka to help redesign a farming training center. For another, Tag is helping to build a beekeeping program in Burma. The organization’s budget is about $1 million, Ives said, and though most funding comes from private donors, Tag cooperates with Mashav on projects in the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Burma. Other partners range from Google to the United Nations Development Program to the Israeli drip-irrigation company Netafim and the Joint Distribution Committee. Tag also works with a host of local organizations in Georgia, Indonesia, the Maldives, Jordan, and Thailand, among others.

Ives said he and other Tag staff do not hide their backgrounds. But Tag is registered in the United Kingdom and the United States, not Israel. And the logo includes two Hebrew letters, but they are barely visible, tucked away inside much larger English letters. Yet Ives wears a thick black beard and his kippah no matter where he travels and told me, via Skype from Indonesia, that he relishes being the face of the Jewish people in the countries where he operates, especially in Muslim countries like Jordan, Turkey, or Indonesia.

“For many of our partners, their relationship with Tag and its Israeli partners is their only contact with Israel,” said Ives, who does not hold Israeli citizenship. “At Tag, we believe this is inherently valuable.” Asked whether Israel’s development is possibly used as a fig leaf for its policies at home, Ives bristled. “Should Israeli specialists not go to help people trapped in rubble in Haiti because there are problems still unresolved in their country?” he asked.

One of Ives’ first consultants was American-born Israeli Yoel Siegel, 62, who works as a consultant on development for the Israeli government and various nonprofits. Siegel was running a training seminar in Israel for Mashav when a student from the Solomon Islands, studying in Israel thanks to Israeli government funding, asked Siegel to help his province form a development plan. Siegel flew over, funded by both Tag and Mashav. He has since been there four more times—which he said is exceptional for Israeli work abroad.

One of the peculiarities of working on aid projects as an Israeli is the reaction of evangelical Christians, Siegel said. “I have people come up and touch me just because I come from the Holy Land,” he said of his time in the Solomon Islands. “I have to be careful not to be viewed in any Messianic ways.” That precaution aside, Siegel told me he thinks Israel’s history makes it an ideal partner for development. “If you look at Israel in 1950 and you look at it today, the change, it’s unbelievable,” Siegel said. “And we still have some of that old developing country mentality. We go out, we sit in the villages, we sit in local coffee shops and local restaurants, we eat local food, and we get our hands dirty. That’s very Israeli, this informality.”


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Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.